When someone commits a crime, especially a particularly nasty one, we often get a little warm glow upon hearing that they’ve been caught and will spend X number of years (possibly life, possibly death), in prison. It’s a feel-good sentence; not as much so as the death penalty, but it’s there, and there’s no doubt about it. We also like to fantasize about prison being harsh and unpleasant, and if it was someone we really disliked, we hope like hell that they get raped in prison. That’ll learn ’em!
The United States puts more of its population, as a percentage, behind bars than any other. We’re at the top. We’re ahead of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and other places we really dislike and don’t want to be like. To be fair, in this case, we aren’t; we’re worse. Now, again, to be fair, lots of those countries just straight-up murder their prisoners and do so at a much higher rate than we do. But that’s no excuse.
Let us consider the points of prison. I’d say there are two points; punishment and protecting society. We can throw in revenge and reform as two smaller, sub-points, if we like.
I won’t argue that society has no business protecting itself, because it absolutely does. There are those people who are in prison now, and probably should be there until they die. These are people who are dangerous to themselves and to others, and will always be. I’d absolutely be ok with keeping someone like Charles Manson in prison until he dies, though even then, I think the state should have to go in periodically and prove that he needs to be kept there. We kind of have that now, with parole boards and the like, but I’d rather the burden of proof be on the state to convince people that he, or anyone else, must remain in prison.
Now we move onto the punishment discussion. Punishment is a fairly nebulous concept in many ways. Its ultimate goal is to motivate someone, through negative reinforcement, to not do what they shouldn’t be doing.
I don’t think I want the government in the business of punishing people. I just don’t. It makes me more and more uncomfortable the more that I think about it. I don’t like the idea of a government employee like a teacher spanking a child “to teach them a lesson”. By the same token, I don’t like the idea of the government locking up someone “to teach them a lesson”. That isn’t the government’s job.
I’d like prison to become an option of very last resort. I’d like it to require a special sentencing hearing and have it treated with the same weight with which we now handle capital punishment (that word again…). If this sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote a bit about it before. I said that prison should be reserved only for those who commit violent crimes, and that everyone else should be given other options.
Now I’d like to take that even farther. I’d like to suggest that except in cases of extreme violence, no one should ever spend a day in prison.
This is a radical concept. It would require a complete reworking of how we handle convicted criminals, as well as the way we treat those who are not yet convicted of a crime, but are spending time in jail awaiting trial because they’re too poor to afford bail (another thing I want to have changed). It would require us to focus, and focus hard, on reforming felons. Training them to do new jobs, giving them an education, and generally helping them to see that they can have a life that doesn’t include the crime they committed. A life beyond being a criminal.
I’m not entirely sure what form this would take. Clearly you’d need a network of something like halfway houses for a lot of the people who would otherwise be imprisoned (we can assume that many are either homeless or come from home environments that are, for one reason or another, not suitable). You’d need a system to make sure people participated in their education/job training/counseling/drug treatment/whatever.
We have something like this already, in many ways. Often with first-time offenders, judges will give them a suspended sentence, that is contingent upon them doing X, Y and Z things. This could be “finding and keeping a job”, or “finishing high school”, or the like. All we’d really have to do is expand that into a more formalized system where the default setting is a suspended sentence. If the convicted comply and finish everything the judge has ordered, let the conviction be struck from their record.
Setting up a network of treatment facilities, halfway houses, expanded educational facilities, job training sites, and the like won’t be cheap. But you know what else isn’t cheap? Prison. Prisons are expensive as fuck, and each prisoner costs, on average, $29,000 per year. If, instead, that money was largely funneled away from prisons into these other programs, and the convicts had jobs, where they were paying taxes and perhaps some percentage of income toward the costs of their programs, well, wouldn’t that be a much better way to spend money?
Of course there would continue to be those who wouldn’t get with the program, and that’s a shame. We’d have to set up some sort of graduated system to deal with that and that would, almost certainly, require some time behind bars in extreme cases. I’m willing to accept that if we must. But I’d still like the vast majority to never spend a single day or night behind bars. It’s better for them, it’s better for society, and it would make us actually deal with the problem people of our nation, rather than just throwing them aside.